Monday, July 30, 2012

New Frontiers for Baseball, Part 2

            In my last post I brought up the intriguing idea of baseball expanding into Latin America, before essentially shooting it down. For reasons I've already gone into, I believe the idea of a new location for baseball in the foreseeable future is very possible, and if this new location isn’t south of the border it will have to come from inside the U.S. and Canada. This post will take a brief look at what options might be feasible for MLB going forward.
            I was a little apprehensive about writing this because I knew that a proper analysis would require the use of a lot more statistical know-how than I possess. As it turned out, though, I didn’t need to worry, because the kind folks at the Business Journal newspaper chain have already conducted a study of all metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada, evaluating their ability to support a team in any of the “Big Five” professional sports leagues. A handy chart of these findings can be found here.
            I have a couple of issues with this study, which I’ll get to in a bit, but in general it seems like a very useful tool to see which areas could realistically support a team and which clearly don’t make the cut. (Sorry, Pocatello.) The methodology of the study is explained here, but basically it adds up the annual income of all the residents in a metropolitan area and compares it to the cost of running a team in each league. So the focus is entirely on the financial side.
            One thing this study takes into account, which I had not realized before, is the high cost of running an MLB team as compared to teams in other sports. Based on the average price of tickets and the operating costs associated with baseball, the study finds that an MLB team must have an income base of at least $85.4 billion in order to be viable. By contrast, an NFL team would need $36.7 billion and an MLS team just $15.4 billion. Because of this, the study suggests that over a dozen cities could support a new team in any of the major leagues except MLB (including such locales as Tulsa, Rochester, New Haven and Honolulu).
            If we take the study on faith, the outlook for MLB seems grim. Only six metropolitan areas are rated as being definitely able to support a new team—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Houston and Riverside-San Bernardino—and of these six five already host at least one MLB team. While on paper these cities would certainly have the capacity for a second or third team, in practice it seems difficult to imagine a new team building a fan base; the only instance I can think of in which MLB expanded into a city already hosting a team was its creation of the New York Mets, and in that case two previous teams had already moved out of New York, leaving a fan base ripe for appropriation. A new team in New York or any of these cities today would have no such advantage—with baseball fans generally committed to the existing team(s), and with the existing team(s)’ quality of play probably higher than the new team’s for some time, except perhaps in the case of a second Houston team (zing), it seems hard to imagine a new team gaining much traction in a city already represented in MLB. If we eliminate cities with existing teams, then, Riverside-San Bernardino—the region of Southern California known as the Inland Empire—is left as the only guaranteed viable destination according to the study. Among the other possibilities, Montreal is rated as close to ideal, and several other cities are rated as borderline, including Bridgeport-Stamford, Las Vegas, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Providence, Austin and Hartford.
            This study’s weakness is that it is, by its own admission, incomplete; while it measures the vital question of viability, it does not take other important factors into account. One of the biggest issues I see is that of existing teams’ territory, both in terms of official territory and fan base. Territorial rights nearly prevented the Montreal Expos from moving to Washington and have been a stubborn obstacle to an A’s move to San Jose. A new Inland Empire team—they would have to be called the Stormtroopers—would face just such a problem, as the Dodgers and Angels (and possibly the Padres as well) would likely resist an attempt to move a fourth team to Southern California. This might also derail attempts to move a team to New Jersey (not designated as a separate area in the Business Journals study but proposed in the past), Providence or Connecticut; existing teams would undoubtedly try to block such an effort. Another problem is that of existing fan bases. A New Jersey team—which could perhaps be named for the Newark Bears—would struggle in the shadow of the Yankees and Mets; there is certainly a precedent for teams identifying as New Jersey teams, but these have had, erm, mixed success. A better case could perhaps be made for a team in southern Connecticut (we could maybe call them the Connecticut Wasps, as I understand the name Yankees is taken). In addition to its wealth, Connecticut fans have been supportive of Connecticut teams in the past, and a state without a professional team of its own would probably respond well to MLB. Still, competing with the Yankees and Red Sox for attention seems chancy at best. I’m not sure how much of a problem this would be in the Inland Empire, since I am far less familiar with Southern California than the Northeast, but since much of the region shares a television market with Los Angeles, it seems likely that the Dodgers and Angels would have a significant following.
            Having gone over some areas with nearby existing teams, let’s look at some completely unoccupied markets. From a financial standpoint, the Business Journal study identifies several borderline viable markets: Montreal, Las Vegas, Hampton Roads (the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area of southern Virginia) and Austin. Las Vegas seems alluring at first glance, but besides the obvious unsavory association with gambling it has been hit extremely hard by the current economic climate, has few nearby populated areas outside the immediate urban core and, as a city of expatriates and tourists, would likely struggle to build up a fan base. (Its AAA team, for example, has had dismal attendance; more on those numbers in a bit.) Hampton Roads and Austin would be intriguing if unproven options—neither has hosted a major league team in any sport—but I would argue that Montreal might actually be the most viable market without a current team. Besides its large population, it has a preexisting (if relatively small) fan base left over from the Expos. In their heyday (around the 1980s) the Expos were a viable team, and with a modern facility replacing Olympic Stadium a revived franchise could conceivably be viable again. However, even putting aside the unlikelihood of securing a new stadium, it seems all but impossible that MLB would risk a return to Montreal in the foreseeable future, considering the fate of the Expos. While I would argue that a Montreal team would have a shot at success, it would still be a significant risk, and one that MLB would be especially reluctant to take. (MLB should, however, seriously consider giving Montreal a AAA team, which seems eminently doable.)
            Plenty of other markets are worthy of consideration. Besides Austin and Hampton Roads, several cities such as Portland, San Antonio, Columbus, Charlotte, Vancouver and Salt Lake City are worth a look based on size alone. (I’ll get to Orlando, Sacramento and San Jose shortly.) An additional factor not addressed by the Business Journal study comes into play here as well—namely, the intangible question of whether a place would make a good baseball town, with fans that would be likely to support a team even if it struggled in its early years and a population likely to help finance a place to play. This is obviously very subjective, but we can look at the turnout for minor league baseball and other sports to get an idea of whether an area could possibly keep a team afloat despite not quite making the cut income-wise. High AAA attendance figures make Austin and Columbus look like more appealing destinations and put such locales as Louisville, Indianapolis, Albuquerque, Buffalo and minor league-leading Allentown (surprise!) on the radar screen. In particular, Indianapolis and Louisville strike me as good places for sports; both have a long professional and college sports tradition and do not overlap any of the current markets.
Another city I would definitely add to this list is Omaha, which, besides having solid minor league attendance, draws large crowds to the College World Series each year as well as to college basketball and hockey games (as one writer points out, Creighton University’s basketball team is among the NCAA’s attendance leaders and only drew 1,500 fewer fans per game than the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, despite not being in a major conference). In fact, despite being smaller than most of the competition, Omaha may be one of the more appealing possible destinations for MLB for the simple reason that it is one of the few cities with a usable ballpark already available. TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, which opened last year, is a state-of-the-art facility which, while currently only able to seat 24,000 fans, can be expanded to 35,000 if need be, big enough to house a team. Omaha’s willingness to build such a large facility to be used largely for college sports speaks well of both the economic climate and the locals’ interest in baseball. Compare that with Portland, which lost the AAA Beavers after consistent local opposition destroyed several plans for a new ballpark (which would have been considerably smaller than Omaha’s). This is not to say that Portland couldn’t work for baseball—the city is the largest U.S. market without a team apart from the Inland Empire, and it has proven it can support professional sports—but the comparison illustrates how a smaller market could potentially beat out a larger one in attracting an MLB team. (This actually had a shot at happening in 1991, when the success of Buffalo’s AAA Bisons led to the city being seriously considered as an expansion site, along with the much larger markets of Washington, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Denver. Sadly, as you may have guessed, the last two cities were eventually chosen.)
Nevertheless, a team in any of these cities would face the considerable disadvantage of being in a small market, a serious problem in an era when the wealth gap among major league teams seems more significant than ever before. All of the cities I've listed would qualify as small markets, and an expansion team in such a market would find it particularly hard to remain viable, at least at first. An inability to turn a profit in the early years could cripple the Portland Beavers or Tidewater Tides or Omaha Crickets or whatever before the team could really get off the ground. Many of these places are also untested as far as major league professional sports are concerned, and such expansion into totally new markets has had mixed results. The obvious goal for a small-market expansion team would be to emulate Basketball's Oklahoma City Thunder, whose success on the court has been appreciated by a highly enthusiastic fan base. But there are plenty of less successful examples such as the recently sold Memphis Grizzlies (not to mention their previous iteration in Vancouver) or the consistently mediocre Columbus Blue Jackets. Starting a team in a new market, even a relocated existing team, is a significant gamble, and the relatively small population base of most of the sites I have proposed makes success even more of a challenge. Everything has to come together for a new team to succeed, and particularly during difficult times for the game it could be tough to convince MLB's front office and/or a potential owner to get behind a move to a new market. So while there is certainly a great deal of potential in moving, the risks are high, and the challenge of developing a fan base while building a competitive team, not to mention the problem of finding a place to play in most of the potential home cities, is a daunting one.

For existing teams, then, another option might be more appealing: movement within the home region. As discussed in my previous post I believe that the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays are probably the most likely candidates for relocation in the near future, which means that the local options realistically consist of San Jose and Sacramento for the A's and Tampa and Orlando for the Rays. All four cities are considered by the Business Journal study to be below the required income to sustain a team, but my suspicion is that the population growth in all three, as well as the proximity to Oakland/St. Petersburg (meaning that fans are already in place), would allow any of the cities to sustain a team. Sacramento's case would also likely be helped by the likely departure of the NBA's Kings for Anaheim in the near future, leaving a professional sports void. One problem would be finding a place to play and, in the case of San Jose, getting permission to play there; this problem has prevented a deal for a San Jose ballpark from being solidified. Sacramento and Orlando are also considerably further from the current homes of their teams than the other two, and a team moving to these cities would be hampered by the need to develop a new fan base. This is especially true of Orlando; the A's are far more established in Northern California than the Rays are in Florida, and the presence of a popular A's AAA affiliate in Sacramento has likely created a fan base that could be appropriated. San Jose, being part of the San Francisco Bay Area, could likely draw fans from the Oakland/East Bay area and from San Francisco proper, and Tampa is already the center of the Rays' fan base. (This article has assumed from the start that the Rays would be able to find a way out of their oppressive lease with St. Petersburg, which tethers the team to the city; if this can be done, a move seems not just possible but likely.) Still, a new stadium would have to be financed, and the teams would still need to be competitive in order to thrive.

The final option? Staying home and building a new stadium near the old one. In the end, that might be the safest choice, particularly for Oakland. This article has provided plenty of options for new homes, but all are fraught with risk, and moving within the region carries the risk of losing a fan base if support in the new city cannot be built up (this is not as much of a problem for the Rays in Tampa since, as I mentioned, their fans frequently come from Tampa anyway). A new destination for MLB has the potential to generate new interest in the game or the potential to fail miserably. Particularly under difficult economic conditions, a renewed effort to stay home would be a safer way to guarantee at least some measure of viability.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

New Frontiers for Baseball, Part 1

On the surface, at least, this doesn’t seem like a particularly good time to be talking about new locations for Major League Baseball. We’ve just come to the end of a string of newly constructed stadiums from Baltimore to Miami; today only 9 of the 30 teams play in ballparks built before 1992, and most of these parks (such as Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium) have aged well and are not considered candidates for replacement. Furthermore, the economic downturn in the United States has probably ruled out another round of expansion for the foreseeable future. But this does not mean we should rule out the possibility of a new team completely.

Two teams have conspicuously been left out of the recent ballpark-building spree and could certainly be considered candidates for relocation. The Tampa Bay Rays have consistently had among the lowest attendance in baseball since their creation despite fielding good teams in recent years. Tropicana Field is widely despised, and its location in St. Petersburg is a significant distance away from most Tampa Bay Area residents. Owner Stuart Sternberg’s proposed new stadium in St. Petersburg was denied funding by the city, and the Rays and MLB have been exploring other options (with MLB commissioner Bud Selig recently calling the Rays’ low attendance “inexcusable”). At least one member of the Rays front office has acknowledged that, in general, “baseball hasn’t been very successful here in Florida.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Oakland Athletics have found themselves in a similar situation; the team plays in an outdated stadium (which it has occupied since moving from Kansas City in 1968) and has become a familiar presence at the bottom of the MLB’s attendance rankings. After attempts to construct a new stadium in Oakland or nearby Fremont, owner Lew Wolff is currently trying to gain approval to move the team to San Jose (a considerably larger city than Oakland), but this depends on the San Francisco Giants giving up their rights to the area, and it is unclear whether this will happen. It still seems likely that the A’s will stay in Northern California—in addition to San Jose, Oakland is making another push to keep the team, while Sacramento is positioning itself as an alternative after being jilted by the NBA’s Kings—but a move farther afield is not impossible. And an improved economy could conceivably lead to expansion at some point in the future. Recent changes such as the expansion of the playoffs and of interleague play appear designed to excite and attract fans, and it’s possible that MLB could go so far as to expand (in a hypothetical future in which the economy is solid) in order to generate a buzz.

So as a thought experiment I plan to look at potential future destinations for Major League Baseball. And to start with, I’ll consider what may be the most intriguing possibility for baseball: moving beyond North America.

South of the Border?

The advantages of placing a major league team in Latin America are obvious. Baseball is wildly popular in several countries in the region, and a large and increasing percentage of players and fans hail from there. A team would help solidify MLB’s fan base in Latin America. Perhaps more important would be the precedent a move to Latin America would send. No major professional sports league in the United States has ever fielded a team outside the U.S. and Canada. (As a side note, the AAA International League did include a team in Cuba, the Havana Sugar Kings, during the 1950s; it would be interesting to consider whether MLB might eventually have ended up in Havana if the Cuban Revolution had not succeeded.) In a period when MLB has been steadily losing ground to the NFL and NBA, such a risky move could help shake up baseball’s aging fan base and, combined with other measures, get more people excited about the game. Other leagues have also seen the possibilities that could stem from a global presence; NBA commissioner David Stern, for one, has spoken openly of his desire to place a team in London at some time in the future. An effort to globalize baseball could be the very thing needed to place the game on a stronger footing at home as well.

MLB has given Latin America serious consideration in the past. In this post I will look at the three cities that have been considered in the past: San Juan, Mexico City and Monterrey.

All are big markets. Mexico City’s estimated city population of 8.9 million and metropolitan population of 19.5 million make it the second-largest urban area in the Americas after São Paulo and one of the largest in the world. Monterrey has over a million people in the city and over four million in the metropolitan area, which would likely rank in the top 15 in the United States (its exact ranking depends on how a metropolitan area is defined). San Juan proper is quite a bit smaller, but its metropolitan area has over two million people (more than half the population of Puerto Rico) and, while not as large as Monterrey’s, would still be larger than several metropolitan areas that host MLB teams (Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee). San Juan would have an additional advantage in that, despite being part of Latin America, it is also part of the U.S. (and may become a state in the near future), which would enable MLB to avoid problems such as political instability, visa issues and the Mexican peso while still reaching out to Latin America. A San Juan team could also attempt to build up a fan base among the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, which is larger than the population of Puerto Rico itself (though doubtless many of these fans would remain loyal to the Yankees or Mets).
Baseball previously considered San Juan as a destination in 2004, when the Montreal Expos were looking for a new home; the team played a fraction of its “home” games in 2003 and 2004 at San Juan’s Estadio Hiram Bithorn, where they drew more fans than in Montreal (though this admittedly says much more about Montreal than about San Juan) and inspired a push by Puerto Rico to lure the team there permanently. While this effort was not successful, MLB did return to San Juan in 2010 with a highly anticipated series between the Mets and the Marlins. Mexico City and Monterrey haven’t hosted MLB games, but both have large, enthusiastic fan bases and have been considered as destinations for baseball teams in the past.

Despite all these pros, a move to Latin America in the near future seems unlikely. The main problem is simply one of money.

For a Mexican team this is not quite as glaring an issue as many Americans would assume; Mexico City and Monterrey are the two richest cities in Mexico. Based on the Human Development Index, generally used as an indicator of quality of life in a country, both Mexico City and Nuevo Leon (the state that contains Monterrey) are at levels of human development equivalent to many European countries, and many people have high levels of disposable income. However, these statistics obscure the high levels of income inequality in Mexico; while wealthy Mexicans would likely be able to afford tickets, most people do not make enough money to be able to easily afford to attend games at major league prices. Mexico’s Gini coefficient, a measure of the extent to which income equality in a country deviates from a perfect equality (higher means less equal) is considerably higher than that of the United States, and over a third of people in Mexico City itself (which, again, is one of the richest parts of the country) live below the poverty line. Considering its huge population Mexico City could conceivably have enough wealthy citizens to form a fan base capable of paying for major league tickets, but having a team that can only hope to draw a minority of the population even in a best-case scenario seems like a losing proposition. (The same goes for Monterrey, only more so due to the city’s smaller size.) And that doesn’t even take into account other problems, including finding or building an MLB-quality ballpark in either location, Mexico City’s high altitude (it would be the highest in the majors) and low air quality, and the ongoing Mexican drug war, which has turned once-safe Monterrey into a hotbed of violence and would undoubtedly loom over any effort to find investors for a Mexican venture.

San Juan doesn’t have the last two problems, though it would likely need a new ballpark (Estadio Hiram Bithorn has a capacity of only 20,000), but the wealth problem would still likely cripple a team based there. An estimate of Puerto Rico’s median income in 2009 placed it at only $18,654, around half that of the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi (and considerably lower than Mexico City as well), which would likely make it impossible to consistently draw fans without setting ticket prices at unsustainably low levels. MLB games in San Juan have been priced at levels similar to games in the U.S. (in the 2010 series, while bleacher seats could be had for $13, other seats sold for $34 and up), which would make it very difficult for most Puerto Ricans to attend more than a few games per year, but lower ticket prices would make it harder to pay operating costs (as will be explored in my next post, MLB teams cost quite a lot to operate). I can’t think of a realistic means of solving this problem. (Incidentally, this is also why a team in a more exotic locale such as Caracas and Santo Domingo, where interest in baseball is high but the standard of living is low, would also be a losing proposition.) One way a team in San Juan might try to keep itself viable would be securing a lucrative television contract in order to appeal to Puerto Ricans on the mainland (who now outnumber Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico itself), but success in this would seem to be improbabe at best. Besides the challenge of getting people to watch, teams can’t survive on TV alone. Without a fan base able to regularly attend games, a team cannot survive. The same factors that prevent teams in excessively small markets from thriving would likely doom a team in San Juan.

As tempting as the idea is, then, movement into Latin America does not seem like a realistic idea at present. It is possible that in the coming decades conditions will change enough to make this work—Mexico’s economy has been projected to expand even further, and the possibility of statehood for Puerto Rico might ultimately change the economic and social conditions there. For now, however, if MLB wants to make a change, it will have to start at home. This will be the subject of my next post.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Lobotomizing A's

Being an Oakland A’s fan is frequently an exercise in creative lobotomy.

In 2006 the A’s reached the American League Championship Series, they had a strong team and a recent history of Moneyball fueled success. When Magglio Ordonez deposited a Huston Street offering into the left field bleachers to complete a humiliating four game sweep, A’s fans everywhere lost the part of their brains that believed in destiny. The part that assumed with a self-assured passion that if our team had a compelling enough story, a powerful enough lineup and a sufficiently long record of barely averted victory we were destined to succeed.

In 2007 Dan Haren started the All-Star Game. Nick Swisher was a fan favorite star and Jack Cust came out of nowhere to be a three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, homerun) hero. And then, the stars were gone, and the part of our minds that believed in spunky success, in winning with flash, were seared away.

2008 was the year of bargain bin success. Cust blasted 33 homers, Frank Thomas hit a triple, Ryan Sweeney and Jack Hannahan wowed on defense and Rajai Davis ran away with every base on the field. Justin Duchscherer became a starting pitcher, and a good one at that, and Dana Eveland and Greg Smith became the most watchable soft tossing lefties in the league. And then, despite a decent first half performance, the A’s traded Rich Harden to the Cubs and Joe Blanton to the Phillies, for what amounted to fifteen hits from Josh Donaldson a set of superb stirrup socks and 151 mediocre innings from Josh Outman. That quickly, the part of every A’s fan that trusted, defended and lionized Billy Beane without reservation winked out of existence.

That is not to say that we lost all faith in Beane, for he pivoted quickly, and 2009 began with a set of stars in the lineup and young brilliance in the rotation and bullpen. But the 2009 A’s tanked, and they did so in an entirely disheartening manner. Matt Holliday wanted to be anywhere else but Oakland, as his hitting before and after his trade to the Cardinals clearly displayed. Even worse, Eric Chavez, whose likeness adorned every lunchbox, calendar and poster the A’s handed out, played only eight games all year. In 2009 A’s fans lost the ability to expect even mediocrity from their players.

2010 seems in hindsight to have been a happy time to be an A’s fan. The young players stockpiled by Beane finally began to produce, the team still couldn’t hit, but still rode spectacular pitching performances to a .500 record. Yet 2010 must be understood not as a respite from the piecemeal destruction of the hopes, happiness and brains of Athletics fans, but as a nefarious and entirely intentional build-up to even more through destruction. For in 2011 the A’s had the pitching, a bit of power and a fun team. And then the universe informed Brett Anderson that throwing a slider 40% of the time was simply unfair. Of course, the universe, being a shameless hussy, did so by turning his elbow ligaments into spaghetti. The A’s fell apart, and at the end of the season Beane sold off all of the parts.

Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Ryan Sweeney, Brad Zeigler, Josh Willingham, and Andrew Bailey disappeared. The A’s began to rebuild their roster again, thus admitting that the previous effort had been an unmitigated failure. Worse, we traded away players who were young, under team control for years, and fan favorites. Those players had been our reason to go to the ballpark. They had captivated us with their talent, their youth and their promise, and their departure robbed me of one of my personal pleasures: paging through the lists of A’s prospects and imagining what could be. Why should I hope for young men to grow and succeed when they might play for the Green and Gold for barely a year before being traded?

During the few months prior to the start of the season, A’s fans silently took stock. We had lost destiny, success, trust, mediocrity, and promise. There was nothing left to cut away.

And then the A’s had to go and ruin the narrative: after a slow start they morphed into one of the Cinderella stories of Major League Baseball. Yet this A’s team bears no resemblance to the lobotomizing teams of years past. The A’s hit for power, they never allow runs, they steal when they have to and they galvanize the sleepy crowds.

In fact, the only thing that these Swingin’ A’s bear in common with the Swooning A’s of the past half decade, is the walk-offs. Despite all the pain and suffering, the A’s never lost the walk-off. Now that is not to say that they produced walk-off hits with any great frequency, but their walk-offs had a character, a drama, a majestic beauty entirely out of proportion to their frequency. Jack Cust’s three run blast to cap off his magical first week, Marco Scutaro’s foul pole victory over Mariano Rivera, Mark Ellis’ wall scraping homer on throwback day… The A’s produced good drama, even as they failed to play good baseball. Those walk-offs were the only breaks that A’s fans had from the constant lobotomization.

In 2012 the A’s have combined drama and good baseball, they have built a powerful narrative, boast a strong lineup and exciting pitching and win in fun ways. Slowly the lights are coming back on (yes I am aware I am mixing metaphors, just go with it, ok), and A’s fans are remembering how to root for a good team, how to trust our general manager, how to appreciate mediocrity and hope for victory. I can only hope that these A’s aren’t just setting us up for a fall. Even more than that, if the A’s do begin to lose, I hope the walk-offs never stop.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Struggles Of Tim Lincecum

From time to time, on early mornings commutes to work, I turn the radio to KNBR 680, the local 24/7 sports station. I don’t especially enjoy the radio personalities and it’s hard to believe that the “callers” live on the same planet (in the same town!) as I do, but something about the mindless flow of sports talk makes the commute a little saner. I’ve noticed that sports radio focuses like a sniper-dot on a topic, until it passes or is exhausted, and then it moves on to the next target. Over the all-star break, the Bay Area sports media took the topic of the importance of Tim Lincecum’s next start between its teeth and gnawed on it for the week.

From the Giants organization there were rumblings of this being the deciding start. “If he struggles again, he may get moved to relief or have a start skipped.” Everyone on KNBR agreed. As much as we all love him, the Giants cannot keep Timmy on the mound if he keeps getting knocked around. But after eight brilliants innings, eleven strikeouts and one walk, for one night Tim Lincecum was returned to mythical form. Thankfully, once again, no longer looking human*.

*So much about sports I love because I relate to the teams and players on a human level. The oscillation between the struggle and success of sports resonates with the ups and downs of my own life. But Timmy, to me, is a player that needs to be inhuman. The perfectly balanced delivery, his undersized frame, and the way his splitter looked hittable until the very last moment. A pitcher as unique as Lincecum should be otherworldly.

And after watching the start, I thought back to all the KNBR commentators who talked about the value of the second half; how it can give a player a chance to start over again. I found myself wanting to dismiss this attitude. Statistically, Lincecum was striking out too many players not to regress (progress) to the mean eventually. I almost convinced myself that I knew this would happen, that I was waiting for it. But the truth is, I bought completely into Tim Lincecum poor mental state. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know what, but I knew it was more than bad luck.

I think the mental side of the game is too quickly dismissed in the sabermetrics community (even if it is overplayed in traditional baseball talk). There’s evidence for it; behavioral science strongly suggests that context affects human behavior. And baseball players should be no different. Perhaps the all-star break allowed Lincecum a chance to shift his attention from all the bad starts earlier this year and focus on the game at hand. I’ll never know. That's what bugs me—the not knowing. I love sabermetrics because it allows me to further explore the game. Batting average and RBI totals can only tell so much of a story; with advanced statistics I keep reading. When I start to consider the mental side to pro baseball, it's all speculation. There are a thousand possibilities for why Lincecum is struggling … and you can hear them all on KNBR.

So for now I’m going to have to accept the not knowing. Sometimes a player is unlucky. Sometimes he’s in a mental funk and as a fan I have to cross my fingers and hope he breaks out of it. And maybe that's why I like listening to all the wild theories in the morning. My logical mind rejects them, but part of baseball is the not knowing. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Failing at Baseball Writing in the Old-Fashioned Way

Players who bunt, hit sacrifice flies, and steal bases are given the benefit of the doubt by the baseball press. Perhaps it is because they always appear to be trying so very hard, while stately sluggers are always walking or trotting around the bases. Ever since Moneyball (the book) came out, profile pieces about this sort of player have typically been accompanied by some sort of backslap at sabermetrics, always in the form of irritation with these newfangled mathematics for not seeing proper value in the author’s scrappy subject.

Marcus Hayes’ column about Juan Pierre for the Philadelphia Daily News provides a perfect specimen of such a work. All the clichés are there: bunting practice, a physical defect to overcome, having to fight through some form of baseball adversity, people from the south… Normally I would not deign to refute these concocted storylines, for such pabulum is the preferred fare of the vast majority of baseball writers. In this case, however, I am unable to restrain myself, for in addition to these harmless clichés, Hayes misinterprets and misuses sabermetric statistics on a level so basic and straightforward that his actions border on tragedy.

After Pierre assaults sabermetrics, or “cybergenics” as he calls them, for not properly appreciating his contributions on the field, Hayes produces an example from the sabermetric field that niftily proves his point:

“In fact, Pierre's sabermetric WAR-wins above replacement, the gold standard of metrics - stands at 1.4 this season.
Which, according to one pocket-protected website, rates him as a ‘scrub.’”

The “pocket-protected website” from which he retrieved the statistic, is I discovered this by looking up JuanPierre on both baseball-reference and, the homes of two dueling types of WAR and seeing which one had valued Pierre at 1.4. It did not take me long to do so, but then, I spend an embarrassingly large plurality of my spare time on these sites and was able to navigate them successfully. By neglecting to provide a link to the requisite page, or even naming the site that he then proceeded to demean and insult, Hayes failed in his duty as a journalist to cite his sources and allow his readers to check his work.

Hayes’ trivialization of sabermetrics aside, the true idiocy of his argument comes from his misuse of the statistic that he so readily derides. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a deceptively simple statistic. It measures the contributions of a player to his team above that which a freely available replacement from the minor leagues would be able to provide. To that end WAR includes the player’s offensive, defensive and baserunning contributions. The fangraphs and baseball-reference versions of WAR for position players function on the same principle and merely use different styles of fielding metrics (pitching is a different and altogether more complicated issue).

Now here comes the part Hayes didn’t really think through. Baseball-reference provides a helpful key, explaining in very simplistic terms what levels of performance different WAR values coincide with:

“8+ MVP, 5+ All-Star, 2+ Starter, 0-2 Substitute, < 0 Replacement level player”

Based on this key alone, it would appear that Hayes is indeed correct, the pocket-protector-platoon has failed to value Pierre’s contributions properly as it ranks him as a mere substitute player, a scrub as he puts it.

You might have already noticed the problem: that helpful key is meant to be applied to a full year’s performance. The inclusion of MVP as a category should really have clued Hayes into that fact. Pierre has complied 1.4 WAR in a mere 262 plate appearances (PA), less than half of what would be considered a full season! According to WAR, if Pierre were to double his plate appearances over the remainder of the season, to end with 524 PA (a respectable if somewhat low total for a full season), he would produce 2.8 wins for his team and be considered a solid regular producer, even a minor star!

Quite simply, by failing to take the time to understand the sabermetric realm, Hayes compromised his own argument and, even more tragic, missed the chance to write a truly original piece that could have presented sabermetrics and “scrappy” baseball players as part of the same game. As all people who take the time to play, watch, write about, and discuss baseball are equally in love with the game, such a discussion would have been powerful and, perhaps, even therapeutic for the fragmented baseball public.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hell-boy vs. BABIP

Jeremy Hellickson was plucked from high school by the Tampa Bay Rays in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. During his six years in the minor leagues he struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings, while walking 2.1. He racked up a superb 2.71 ERA and allowed only 7.4 hits per nine innings.

In August of 2008 the Rays, historically patient developers of pitching prospects, finally granted the minor league hitters a reprieve from his destructive fastball, changeup, curveball combination. Hellickson’s instant success in the majors, he boasts a 3.14 ERA in 2+ seasons in the majors and the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award, rescued what had been a disaster draft for the Devil Rays organization.

The three players chosen ahead of Hellickson by the Devil Rays, Wade Townsend, Chris Mason and Bryan Morris have yet to reach the majors seven years later. Their nineteenth round selection, high school first baseman Ike Davis declined to sign and was selected by the Mets in the first round three years later. Even with his struggles this year, Davis would have been the second best player taken by the Rays in that draft, aside from Hellickson.

Yet the undoubted success of the semi-aptly named Hell-boy at the big league level has left many sabermetricians confused.

During his 36.1 inning stint in the majors in 2010, Hellickson struck out 8.17 and walked 1.98. His performance was exactly what the pitching-greedy Rays were hoping for, as he was able to maintain his minor league strikeout and walk rates while transitioning to the majors. The next two and a half years, however, have been something of a shock. Not in terms of results, for Hellickson’s ERA and innings pitched total have been excellent thus far. No, the shock has come from how exactly he is doing it.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a crucial sabermetric concept. It measures how often a batter reaches base when they do not hit a homerun, walk or strikeout. The major league average BABIP is .292 thus far this season, and rarely budges much below that. In his 312.1 career innings, Hellickson has produced a .237 BABIP. In 87 innings this year he has compiled a slightly higher but still impressive BABIP of .255. Combined with his propensity for stranding runners who reach base against him (82.1% career, 83% 2012, 72.4% league average), Hell-boy’s low BABIP has raised his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic, which measures only walks, strikeouts, and home runs, to a sabermetric disaster of 5.42 this season.

His performance in the statistical areas that pitchers have the most control over, has made him a below replacement player.

So what does Hellickson’s eternal battle with BABIP mean for his future success and his current worth? Starting with the latter question, even though he has not struck out many batters, and has allowed a large number of home runs, he has compiled an ERA .60 runs lower than the league average. Those runs saved will remain saved. However, his predictive statistics suggest that he will not save runs at a near-elite rate in the future, thus putting his future success in doubt. The question is complicated further by the absurd dichotomy between Hell-boy the minor leaguer, who was a saber-boy’s dream, and Hell-boy the big leaguer, a sabermetrician’s nightmare.

So, who is Jeremy Hellickson? Should he be defined by his ERA, his BABIP or his FIP? Or, despite his two seasons of experience, should the acronym drifting next to his name in the box score still be my all time favorite: SSS, small sample size.